Geschrieben von Adis Selimi am 05.12.2021
Despite being called “dead”, the adventure genre had some remarkable success in the last years. Especially on the Nintendo Switch, games like Deponia and others have found many fans. The Telltale Games also had many fans while the company was still in business. Nonetheless, adventure games have become more of a niche genre.
This was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, adventures were considered one of the leading genres in the evolving video games industry. One of the developers and creatives who heavily influenced the genre is Charles Cecil. Charles is the creator of well-known adventure classics like the Broken Sword series and was also responsible for Beneath a Steel Sky, an adventure title released in 1994. Developed by Revolution Software, it tells the story of a dystopian Australia in which people live in different mega cities. One of the cities, Union City, is the scene of the game. Protagonist Robert Foster and his robot buddy Joey explore the city and defeat the Artificial Intelligence governing Union City. After that, Robert leaves Joey in charge of the business of Union City.
26 years after Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution Software presented a sequel to the game named Beyond a Steel Sky. Released in 2020 as an Apple Arcade exclusive, the game is now also available for PC and current gen consoles, which also includes the Nintendo Switch. We had the great opportunity to lead an interview with Charles Cecil on the development of Beyond a Steel Sky, the adventure genre in general and recent trends in gaming. You can find the full interview below.
Charles, let us start with thanking you for taking the time! And let us also say that, as you are one of the leading creatives and developers in the industry since its beginnings, it is a great honour to meet you!
Charles Cecil: Thank you, that‘s a very generous introduction. Thank you very much!
Beyond a Steel Sky is a new adventure game, a genre that holds a special place in your company’s heart and evolved a lot over time. Where do you see adventures today and which qualities define an adventure game for you?
Charles Cecil is one of the founders of British developer Revolution Software and has created many iconic adventure games like the Broken Sword series.
© Charles Cecil
Charles Cecil: What a nice question, but I thought you would ask me an easy question. I thought that was the deal! (laughs). For me, in an adventure game, the gameplay and narrative are absolutely intertwined, so that by solving puzzles, you drive forward the narrative, and that is quite unique. The repetitive gameplay loop, even in an RPG, is exploring and killing people or whatever. Whereas in an adventure game, each of the puzzles are designed around a particular point. When we write our puzzles, we try to make sure that our puzzles are absolutely reflective of the state of the world and the character motivation, and also to be believable. I’m a huge fan of Lucas Arts and their puzzles are quite different from ours. The ludicrousness of their puzzles – [they] are fun, but one of the issues is that you are generally rewarded retrospectively, with really funny outcomes. We on the other hand try to make our puzzles logical, so that slightly differentiates us.
As far as where the adventure genre itself is going, if you accept that this is the definition, that gameplay and story are interlinked and change as the story develops, then I would argue that the adventure is in a fantastic place at the moment. When you think about the wide range of adventure games from What Remains of Edith Finch on the one hand or Her Story a couple of years ago or the Obradin, there is an extraordinary range of adventures. I think in many ways it is much more dynamic. If you think about other popular genres, like First Person Shooters, and they are kind of becoming more and more the same with the same experience, whereas adventures are developing creatively and expanding commercially. It’s a great place to be at the moment.
You have been working in the video game industry since the early 80s. How has the industry changed in that time? How did this effect the development of your new game Beyond a Steel Sky?
Charles Cecil: I actually started in writing adventure games, text adventures, in 1981. So I must admit that I have been writing for 40 years. I am extraordinary privileged. I started as soon as I left school and because of that I was able to write games that were published commercially. So I was at the right place in the right time, it’s a huge privilege.
There are many things that have changed, of course, but there are also many things that haven’t changed. But one of the things that has changed most rapidly was that when I was writing my first games, I used to get to meet what you could now call a community, people who would come and buy the games and the would talk to us, so that we got direct feedback from them, which was fantastic and incredibly useful. Then with the rise of retail, the relationship was very much between retailers and gamers. And then, as costs rose, publishers became dominant. So we found ourselves in a position, certainly that was the case for Revolution in 1990, and that lasted for 15 year, where our key relationship was with our publisher. The publisher’s key relationship was with the retailers and their key relationship was with the gamers. So we were many steps away, we had no way of communicating directly. To bypass the retailer, to bypass the publisher.
And then, what happened brilliantly around 2007, and I give Apple a huge amount of credit for that, was that they realized that with the ubiquity of broadband, there was this ability to download to devices directly. And they actually reached out to us, in about 2008, and asked us if we would port our games to their system. And we were hugely privileged and felt really excited that they reached out. And that changed everything, because it gave us the opportunity to engage with our community – we had no idea who those people were – and we went on a Kickstarter campaign for Broken Sword 5 and it was extraordinary. We launched the video, and people came back and said “Oh, George’s chin isn’t right”, and they were right, so we changed it. People were really really excited that we were listening to what they said, but from our perspective, we were really excited that we could talk directly to our community. That really redefined the relationship and the way we develop games.
When we were at Broken Sword 3, even though the game had been very commercially successful, we had to borrow a lot of money, which we never accumed, so commercially it made no sense. And frankly, we mothballed the company in 2005, because we were loosing money. On Broken Sword 3, THQ had made more than 5 Million Dollars profit, we had to borrow 200.000 Pounds to finish the game. It made no sense whatsoever. That all changed around 2006, 2007 with the move to digital distribution, which we embraced. We have been in existence now for thirty years. The business model has changed so profoundly and our business model has changed so profoundly. We are always reinventing ourselves like everybody else, as we respond to changes in the way the business works.
In relation to Beyond a Steel Sky: The original, Beneath a Steel Sky, was published in 1994 by Virgin. We loved working with Virgin. And I’ve worked closely with Dave Gibbons, who is a great friend and a really smart and creative person to collaborate with. And by 1999, 2000 there were two things that publishers were saying. Firstly, the adventure is dead, and it was because they weren’t publishing any adventures. And secondly that the PC was dead. Clearly, the people who were making these decisions were not enormously imaginative, but we were not able to have a game commissioned. And obviously, without it being commissioned by a publisher, it wouldn’t go to retail. So therefore, it was impossible.
The success of Broken Sword 5 was incredible, and we were absolutely thrilled about the ability to engage directly with our community. And with Beneath a Steel Sky: The game had been written in MS-DOS. So when Microsoft stopped supporting MS-DOS in 1998, it meant that the game was effectively dead. And then the most extraordinary thing in hindsight happened. A group called ScummVM emerged and three young programmers got in touch with as and asked if they could get the source code for Beneath a Steel Sky. One was Joost Peters, who is Dutch and worked at a university. The other was a German guy called Robert Göffringmann and I really should know the name of the third guy, but I don’t at the moment. And they took the source code and as a passion project they converted it to run under ScummVM. That gave the game a new lease of life and because of that we started to give it away for free. This was in an era where bandwidth was not very common and huge numbers of people played it. I wish I could say it was a bit of marketing foresight, marketing genius, but it wasn’t, we just thought it was the right thing to do at that time.
So an awful lot of people played the game and an awful lot of people came back and kept asking us about a sequel. Round about 2017, I got back in touch with Dave, and I said you know what, there is quite some enthusiasm, why don’t we write a sequel? And he sent me back some ideas, from 1995, with ideas for a sequel. But they were not appropriate, because back in 1994, we would have assumed that everybody knows about Robert Foster and Joey and Union City. Since 25 years have passed, we were not writing a direct sequel but what I would call a spiritual successor. Technically, the game is so completely different, and from the UI perspective and the third person camera, but at the same time we wanted it to feel true to the original. We wanted it to deliver both a great story for people who have never heard of or played the original, but also we wanted it to be true so that people who were passionate about the original game would find what they expected.
So we went back to what the original game was all about, and it was very much about Robert Foster and his relationship with Joey. At the end of the original game, possibly rather foolishly and maybe naively, Robert Foster leaves Joey in charge of the city. To leave an AI in charge of a city that need to be rebuild, maybe is a little bit foolish. And so the original game was about Union City and actually I got very excited about the idea what would happen to Union City if a benight AI is left in charge.
So what has changed? The main answer is a commercial one. We had a great relationship with Apple and so the game appeared as an Apple Arcade title. It is very very exciting now that we can bring it to consoles. The other thing that changed was that we could now use engine. We chose to use Unreal, because we felt that the experience of our artists and programmers could be used to really good use to push the style. We wanted a comic book style, working with Dave again as a comic book artist, we felt that it would complement the style. But not only does that style give us an aesthetic look, which we felt was attractive, but also in an adventure game, you spend a lot of time looking at the screen and the objects. That meant that we could have a clarity in the background to tell the player what is relevant and not relevant. The style helped us enormously and it was only possible because of Unreal and other engines like Unity. Those engines didn’t exist 10 years ago, so it has profoundly changed the way in which we can approach development.
Revolution Software looks back on a long history of adventure development, starting in 1990. How many people from back then have been involved in the development of Beyond a Steel Sky?
Charles Cecil: That‘s a really nice question! (laughs) Revolution started with four of us, myself and Noirin, who came from Activision, Tony Warriner and Dave Sykes. Dave and Tony are still friends, but are no longer involved in Revolution. Very quickly, we grew into a small core team. At Activision. I had been Head of Development. Head of Testing was a Fellow called Dave Commons. Dave came with me at the beginning. Sadly, he passed away. To answer your question more directly. The people that we had included Sucha Singh who is the art director with Dave. Sucha joined us in around 2000. Andy Bosket joined us in around 2000 as well. So we had some very experienced people on the project, but none of them were in the really early days, none of them were around for Beneath a Steel Sky, apart of course of Dave Gibbons, who worked with us back in 1992. So ironically, Dave is the person who was around in the very early days, but beyond that there is nobody else.
Beneath a Steel Sky, the predecessor of your current game, was released in 1994. When did you start thinking about a successor for the game? Was it challenging to go back to the universe after such a long recess?
Charles Cecil: When back in 1994, the game was published by Virgin Interactive and they describes it as an “interactive comic book”, which – even by marketing standards – is really hard to justify (laughs). What we actually wanted to do with Beyond a Steel Sky was to make good on the promise that had been made that this would be an interactive comic.
The big creative challenge, having decided that we wanted to bring back the Foster and Joey relationship, Union City was a big part and the computer system Linc, was the reinvention of an early system called “Virtual Theater”. Virtual Theater was the engine that we used for our first game Lure of the Temptress released in 1992 and then Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The concept behind virtual theater was that the people walk around the world and live their own lives, and by subverting the world, you could then bring them to do different things. In Beneath a Steel Sky, there is a puzzle that I feel very proud of, in which a factory worker known as Gilbert Lamb is using an elevator and Foster wants to go down with that elevator, but can’t because of Lamb. So Foster manages to hack into the system and remove Lamb’s authority and another area of the game opens.
From an adventure perspective, this felt very dynamic because by changing the circumstances of the world it opened opportunities for the player. And I wanted to explore this further. So what we introduced in Beyond a Steel Sky is a much more sophisticated way of going into a computer system and changing the logic. A lot of the humor in the world comes from the fact that we emphasize with and look through the eyes of Foster, and the people in this world so totally believe that the AI is right that when the world is subverted by Foster and crazy things happen, they somehow believe that this is what is supposed to happen. This gives us one sphere of humor, but it also allows for solutions through the player by subverting the internet of things and the AI.
Reviewers praised both Beneath and Beyond a Steel Sky for their unique characters and universe. What makes a character and story interesting? Is there a video game character you find particularly well crafted?
Charles Cecil: What I have found out very early is that characters are interesting if they are absolutely bound into the puzzles. If you write characters that are not bound into the puzzles, the player will quickly realize and say that they are not important. They might be important to the narrative, but to make sense, they have to be important to the gameplay as well. The way that I approach theses puzzles is that I write the base puzzles, to write the story and then to mold the two together, and that is the really important part. How you mold the story and the puzzles so the two feel actually intertwined. What we don’t want to is to write puzzles for the sake of puzzles. We want to write puzzles that feel like they are narrative blocks and if the player is engaged in the story, he wants to solve them for the story to move forward. That’s our approach, but I would not say that it is the only or best approach.
When it comes to the best character, I will go with a game that I have played a few years ago and which, I would say, is an adventure, called Inside by Playdead. What I love about that is that the character is a little boy and we never have an explanation who he is and the story is never told through dialogue or text, it is told solely through gameplay. And I think that it is an extraordinary exercise to tell story through gameplay, that is something that I really admire. Obviously, we have dialogue and text, but I really admire a developer for telling a powerful story without it.
Besides the Steel Sky universe you created other famous adventure games. Especially the Broken Sword series is well known and beloved among gamers worldwide. How did your other projects influence the development of Beyond a Steel Sky?
Charles Cecil: When I wrote my first game back in 1981, it was not very well written. A friend of mine who just started a computer games company said: “Why do you write adventures?” And I had no idea. I played text adventures by Scott Adams, and I thought I would write one like that. And I have to admit I had just seen Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc and so I designed it around that, but the opening line is “I am in a jungle clearing” and nothing else. A year or two later I met somebody who described that game, and they said it was incredible, how the forest and the light were described, and they went on and on and on. I was rather proud of myself and I went back to the game and took a look. But all I had written was “I am in a jungle clearing” and that was it. It became quite clear to me that people in this interactive mode would read in a lot more than what was actually written.
Secondly, what was interesting is that in the end of this game you could pick up three bits of treasure and
– very much in an Indiana Jones sense – a rock would roll down. We assumed that you could only take those three bits out, and so we told the player what the maximum was, because each one had a different value. What we hadn't realized though is that people could take the treasure and put it by the entrance, or they could take it before triggering the rock and then go back and take more than we had ever expected. And that was interesting, because it meant that right from the beginning people were interested in subverting the way the game worked.
There is a writer called Robert McKee, who talks about something called the expectation gap. The expectation gap is when the protagonist has a goal and they are expecting to reach it but something stops them and they have to take a risk, have to get into jeopardy to go around. And then they will be blocked again and have to get into even greater jeopardy. According to McKee that is what creates this sort of excitement and empathy, but our expectation gap in video games is even more powerful. We still have this idea of having to take risk but further than that you actually solve the puzzles yourself and that is why I think video games as a medium – I hate the term games, they shouldn't be called games at all, let's say adventures – can be so powerful in the way they tell stories because while we clearly have constrains, we have huge opportunities and as adventure writers, our responsibility is to keep exploring how the medium and the opportunities can be harnessed. That's my passion and that's what I bring to each new game. And with Beyond a Steel Sky, as I said before, this opportunity to subvert the world and to see what happens is what I hope people will find exciting because it allows us to deliver the adventure game in a different way.
The world of Beyond a Steel Sky is set in a sci-fi universe. Did sci-fi literature inspire you in the creation of the world? Or are there movies that influenced the design of the world?
Charles Cecil: Yes, absolutely, that's an easy answer. I am a huge fan of the movie Brazil from 1985 and Terry Gilliam, who I see quite regularly now, and I like to think of as a bit of a friend. I am not sure that he would say the same about me, but I love Terry Gilliam and his films. And of course the extraordinary good book 1984 as well. Terry Gilliam said that Brazil would be called 1984 and a half, which would be a more appropriate title for it. So yes, Brazil is a huge inspiration for the game.
Beyond a Steel Sky was first released as an Apple Arcade exclusive. With Xbox Game Pass and other offerings, we are seeing a strong trend towards services in the gaming industry. What is your opinion on that matter? Do you think that this development will benefit developers and gamers in the long run?
Charles Cecil: Maybe you will disagree but the way I see the term service is more in the sense of free to play type, because you are providing a game you continue to service rather than subscription, which I would describe as a service in terms of the game itself. I do not want to sound like a politician, but let me answer the question from a subscription perspective. I do think there is something very attractive about subscription, except that there is so much choice that people value each product less than if they had bought it. For Example, my dear friend Jochen, who is now at Astragon, came to me and brought me a Kraftwerk LP, and it was such a pleasure to open that. Inside were notes and photographs, and it took me back to the 80s, which was the last time I actually opened a record and I realized how wonderful it was. The tactility, the beauty of the artwork, the way it was put together. I am so used to Apple Music and the ability to get everything I can, and it made me realize how lovely it is to get something unique. I would say what people love, what I love, is buying games and looking forward to playing them and subscription will continue to grow of course, but I think there is something very attractive about actually buying something, both physically and digitally, looking forward to it and then playing it.
After being released as an Apple Arcade exclusive, Beyond a Steel Sky is now available for consoles.
© Revolution Software / Microids / astragon Entertainment GmbH
From my own perspective I often find it overwhelming with the subscription models, but subscription is very attractive for adventures because people who normally would not play an adventure go out and play it because they subscribed. There is an awful lot that's good about subscription, but I personally love the idea that you have a unique thing that you buy, whether physical or digital. But I think subscription will just continue to grow. Netflix proved how successful it can be. Everybody talks about the Netflix model, it's kind of cliché already. But it is so spectacularly successful. And then you got Apple TV, which has some fantastic shows as well, Disney+, Amazon. It is extraordinary and it has to grow. Though I have to say, I am not a huge fan of free to play, for a variety of reasons. I think the consumers are now beginning to want to know what they have to pay, rather than paying through dripping in-app purchases and so personally I think subscription is a very healthy replacement for free to play, which of course came to dominate the mobile market so extraordinary.
From a Nintendo perspective, if you go back to the Nintendo DS starting in 2004, in many ways – since you asked about the death of the adventure – the Nintendo DS was the reinvention of the adventure genre. Just remember games like Another Code or Professor Layton. While the publishers thought the adventure was dead, the reinvention really came with the Nintendo format, especially the Nintendo DS. It was the success of those adventures that let us bring back Broken Sword onto the Nintendo DS. And then it was a success on Nintendo DS which lead Apple to approach us and ask us if we could port it to the iPhone. I think we owe Nintendo a huge dept of gratitude as adventure creators for creating a platform that was so adventure friendly and of course now the Nintendo Switch is the best of every world and it's a wonderful device, which attracts a very broad audience. If you accept the adventure as a niche genre but a very sizeable niche genre, then the adventure clearly will become more popular again the larger the market gets.
In a past interview you said that the Wii's motion controls offered interesting new ways to think about game design. 10 years later, what is your opinion now on alternative forms of game controls? Are there special controls you would like to use in one of your future games?
Charles Cecil: Well I think the next thing is gonna be eye tracking so that you can actually control things much faster. In theory I loved the ability from the film Minority Report to move things around on screen with your hands freely, but the problem is that actually moving things around with your arms takes a lot more energy than simply moving your finger on a mouse, so I am gonna put my money on eye tracking and the ability to control an interface just by what you look at.
Let's come to our last question. Nintendo is a very old and influencial company. Are there Nintendo IPs or games that influenced you both as a developer and gamer? And how do they influence you today?
Charles Cecil: One of my favorite games and certainly my favorite Nintendo game would be Super Mario 64. So many people handled 3D really badly and Super Mario 64 was just so joyful in its move from 2D to 3D and I really admire the developers enormously for that. I think it's been hugely influential in terms of camera control and I believe a lot of people looked at it and used it as a base. So of all the Nintendo games I would say that is probably the most important one from a development perspective, because it did everything in such a new way.
You can find a German translation of the interview here.
The interview was conducted by Robin Jung and Adis Selimi from ntower.de.